ACLU Files Lawsuit in California Court Demanding End to Privacy Violations by AT&T and Verizon

May 26, 2006
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

SAN FRANCISCO - The California affiliates of the American Civil Liberties Union today filed two lawsuits in state court requesting injunctions against telecommunications giants AT&T and Verizon to prevent them from illegally providing the National Security Agency with the personal phone records of millions of California customers.

The lawsuits were filed on behalf of more than 100,000 ACLU members statewide and individual plaintiffs including a former Congressman, a former linguist for the Army Security Agency, a Constitutional law professor, "Law & Order" actor Richard Belzer, journalists, psychiatrists, attorneys, and a minister.  The ACLU charged that phone records were provided without the consent of their customers and without a warrant, court order or any other legal process.

“On a massive scale, AT&T and Verizon have violated one of our most precious rights -- the right to privacy guaranteed by our State Constitution,” said Dorothy Ehrlich, Executive Director of the ACLU of Northern California. “In the face of this unprecedented illegal and unconstitutional activity, we call upon the court to order AT&T and Verizon to stop turning over Californian’s phone records to the government.”

“We do not seek to obstruct legitimate law enforcement activities," added Kevin Keenan, Executive Director of the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties, "but we are determined to stand up for the fundamental privacy and due process rights of people whose telephone records have been divulged without warrant, notice or consent.”

According to USA TODAY, shortly after September 11, 2001, AT&T and Verizon unlawfully provided to the NSA the personal calling patterns of millions of California customers, including phone numbers called, and the time, date and direction of the calls without their customer’s knowledge, consent, or proper legal process.

Among those whose rights were violated are the following individuals, who all have compelling reasons for why their phone calls must remain private:

  • Tom Campbell, a former member of Congress and a former California State Senator, who objects to the disclosure of his customer calling records without either his consent or without a legal process.  His local and long distance residential telephone carrier is AT&T.
  • Robert Scheer, a nationally syndicated columnist and journalist at the San Francisco Chronicle, who writes frequently about the war in Iraq and national security issues. He regularly uses his residential phone to make calls to confidential sources.  AT&T is his residential telephone provider.
  • George Main, a computer consultant and former linguist for the Army Security Agency, which reported directly to the National Security Agency (1969-1978). Today, he is president of Sacramento Veterans for Peace and his recent anti-war activity was listed in the Pentagon’s secret database. He is a residential customer of AT&T for local and long distance service.
  • Dr. Robert Jacobson, a technology expert in California who in 1985 helped draft the California Telephone Privacy Act, which was passed with bipartisan support and signed into law by Gov. George Deukmejian.

"The law is clear and it reflects the fact that privacy is important to the people of this state and its business community," Dr. Jacobson said. "People expect their private conversations to be private whether they’re calling friends, family, church, or business associates. Similarly, business thrives when customers know that their personal information is not being given away without their consent."

Peter Eliasberg, a managing attorney with the ACLU of Southern California, added: "This type of overbroad data collection is especially alarming to doctors, psychiatrists, lawyers, ministers and their clients. Our society protects privacy and respects doctor-patient, lawyer-client, and minister-parishioner confidentiality. Without a system of checks and balances, the government can monitor any phone call or e-mail it wants, and that abuse of power sends a chilling message to all innocent Americans that our conversations are not our own."

Nationally, AT&T has 49 million customers and Verizon has 100 million wireless and landline customers in 28 states. In its lawsuit, the ACLU cited two state laws that it said the telephone providers had violated:

  • California Constitutional Right to Privacy Violation. AT&T and Verizon have violated the inalienable right to privacy guaranteed in Article I, Section 1 of the California Constitution. This provision was passed overwhelmingly by California voters in 1972 to protect the privacy rights of all and with the precise purpose of prohibiting data sharing of this type.
  • Consumer Protection Violation. AT&T and Verizon have violated a California law that prohibits a telephone company from making available a residential subscriber’s personal calling information to another person or company without first obtaining the subscriber’s written consent.

“With the help of AT&T and Verizon, the NSA has assembled the largest database in the world,” said Nicole Ozer, Technology and Civil Liberties Policy Director of the ACLU of Northern California. “This is much more than data-mining. This has been the systematic strip-mining of the private calls of millions of innocent Americans.”

This week, 20 other ACLU affiliates throughout the country filed complaints with their local Public Utility Commissions or sent letters to state Attorney Generals and other officials demanding investigations into whether local telecommunications companies allowed the NSA to spy on their customers.

The ACLU also placed full-page ads in newspapers urging readers to file complaints with Public Utility Commissions at www.aclu.org/dontspyonme

The ACLU complaint against AT&T is online at
/safefree/nsaspying/25684lgl20060526.html

The ACLU complaint against Verizon is online at
/safefree/nsaspying/25683lgl20060526.html

Read a related release: New CIA Director's NSA Past Could Taint Agency's Future

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